Curanderos, Shamans, and Plant-Based Remedies

Maybe everyone grows up with a narrow framework for deciding what is normal, what is exotic, and what is abnormal. I certainly did. When I moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, in my early twenties, there were many things about life there that seemed exotic to me. Some things, like mangoes and papayas, became normal to my expanding Texan mind, but wherever I look, even after many years, there are sights to see, foods to try, experiences to have, and ideas to explore that still amaze me.

Back in North Texas, sweet iced tea was the only tea I knew anything about, and home remedies were limited to merthiolate and mentholatum. We went to the doctor for just about anything that couldn’t be treated with those smelly substances. The doctor would prescribe dreaded shots, pills, or terrible-tasting liquids in mysterious-looking bottes. If all else failed, he (the doctor was always a “he” when I was a child) would put you in the hospital, cut some part of you open, do some sort of magic, and then sew you back up.

In Mexico, even though my husband was a medical student in a conventional medical school, I learned about a surprising number of alternative remedies that didn’t involve a health professional. In addition to Vicks Vaporub in Mamá’s ropero, there was manzanilla (chamomile) tea in the kitchen to relieve tummy aches and te de tila (linden flower tea) to calm down an overwrought family member. A savila (aloe vera cactus) plant in the patio was snipped as needed for healing gel to treat burns from the sun, the kitchen, or naughty kids playing with matches. American cough syrup reeks of eucalyptus oil, but in Mexico you can buy dried eucalyptus leaves in the mercado and make a potion to drink or gargle as needed. Common cooking ingredients like vinegar, cinnamon, and onions, do double duty as home remedies for all kinds of ailments. Agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower water) has medicinal uses, like lowering blood pressure, but it is more commonly just cooled, sweetened, and served as a beverage.

There is renewed worldwide interest in ancient healing practices, as chemically distilled herbs and other substances, what we call medicines, start to let us down. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and drugs with side effects worse than the diseases they purport to remedy make headlines and cause professionals and laypeople alike to wonder if we maybe threw out a lot of proverbial babies with the proverbial bathwater of old-fashioned remedies. Modern surgical techniques indeed work miracles, but at their very finest, they are alarmingly crude and risky and always leave a scar, no matter how imperceptible.

With renewed interest in healing foods and herbs comes a revival of interest in ancient healers throughout Latin America and wherever remnants of ancient cultures are kept alive. This revival has created a burgeoning industry of shaman-seeking tourism, and with it flourishing business opportunities for neoshamans and faux shamans. Nevertheless, among Mexicans, many city people and most rural residents know where to find at least one authentic curandero. I was shocked to learn that my educated cosmopolitan Mexican friends and family members, whom I saw as perfectly normal and modern by my small-town Texas standards, thought nothing of scheduling a limpia (cleansing) before moving into a new house or after a run of bad luck, and they knew exactly which shaman, or curandero, of their acquaintance could do it.

Armando Gonzalez-Stuart, a researcher at The University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) has published a beautiful, informative, and useful book with the title Plants Used in Mexican Traditional Medicine. It has a brief history of traditional medicine in Mexico, an alphabetical list of plants used for healing, with their scientific names, some of their common names, and photographs of most of them.

More plant-based recipes at Fruit and Stuff.

ALMOND MILK

Soak 1 c RAW ALMONDS overnight (or up to two nights for creamier milk). Drain and rinse. Add 2 c WATER. Blend until smooth. Drain and squeeze through a cheesecloth. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.

OATMEAL MILK

Wash and squeeze 1 c OATMEAL 5 times. Blend oatmeal about 1 min in 1 LITER OF WATER with a PINCH OF SALT and 1 T SUGAR. Strain the mixture up to 4 times, returning the leftovers to the blender with more water and rinsing the strainer each time.

CASHEW SOUR CREAM

Soak 1/2 c raw cashews for an hour, rinse and drain. Combine with 1/3 c water, 1/2 t lemon juice, 1/2 t apple cider vinegar, 3/4 t nutritional yeast, 1/4 t salt in blender until smooth.

CHICKPEA (GARBANZO) CHEESE

Soak 1 1/2 c DRIED CHICKPEAS for 8 hours, drain and rinse. Blend until smooth with 1 CLOVE GARLIC, 1 t SALT, 2 T NUTRITIONAL YEAST, 1 T APPLE CIDER VINEGAR, 1 T OLIVE OIL, 1 1/2 – 2 c WATER. Cook over medium heat until thick. Pour into mold immediately and cool. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.

SOME THOUGHTS ON GOING PLANT-BASED AND A RECIPE FOR VEGAN BARBECUE SAUCE

After much thought, some serious reading, and a few gross-out videos, I have decided to limit all animal-based products in my food intake. Vegan is not synonymous with tasteless. If you enjoy pizza, barbecue, curry, salsa, or any of the many flavors that distinguish different international dishes, they can be made without animal products and served over potatoes, cauliflower, portobello or other mushrooms, or just about anything you can think of.

Here is a recipe for vegan barbecue sauce. If you are a purist, look for organic ketchup, low sodium soy sauce, and vegan Worcestershire sauce.

Whisk together 1 c KETCHUP, 1 T MOLASSES, 1/8 c BROWN SUGAR, 1/8 c APPLE CIDER VINEGAR, 1 T SOY SAUCE, 1 T WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE, 1 t SRIRACHA OR OTHER HOT SAUCE. Makes about 1 1/2 c. Double or triple as needed. Spoon over baked beans, tofu, portobello mushrooms, mashed potatoes, vegan meat substitutes.


There is overwhelming evidence that human beings are designed to be herbivores. Some experts say we are frugivores–fruit eaters. Our ability to adapt to environments that are less than suitable for our species has given us great advantages over other creatures, but there has been a price in health and longevity for that adaptability.

Some people go vegan fanatically, but I favor gentle transitions and a light touch. A Whataburger Junior once or twice a year will not kill me, but a daily diet of Whataburger ingredients will be a serious obstacle to more years of life and the health and energy to enjoy them.

Many plant foods are delicious with little or no enhancement. Ripe pineapples, bananas, mangos, guavas, peaches, pears, apples, watermelons, cantaloupes, and many other fruits call for minimum preparation and no other ingredients. The same is true for nuts and seeds like pecans, almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, cashews. Ripe avocados and tomatoes need a little salt for my taste but nothing more. I like my strawberries with a little extra sweetness, but ripe bananas and strawberries mixed together are delicious with nothing added.

The “balanced meal” of meat, starch such as potatoes, rice, or pasta, green or other brightly-colored vegetable like green beans or carrots, a leafy salad, bread, and a beverage is firmly embedded in my mind because that’s what I learned as a child, but it is not the healthiest way to eat.

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